To See or Not to See by: Marvin Olasky

Posted: November 18, 2011 by jperritt in Action, Drama, True Story
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Amoral, moralistic, and biblical film reviewing | Marvin Olasky

I watched Saving Private Ryan recently, and was impressed with it all over again. This DVD viewing, though, reminded me of a firefight sparked by WORLD’s review of the film (Aug. 8, 1998) when it was playing in theaters.

Many letters that we printed took WORLD to task for praising a film that contained graphic violence. They forced me to think about what Christian film reviewers should do, if they share with me the fundamental assumption that Christians should not live in a cultural ghetto, and should develop points of contact with the non-Christians who surround us.

I respect Christians who want to isolate themselves from the world, but my models are Daniel and Paul, both of whom displayed knowledge of the pagan poetry and theology that surrounded them. Within that context, I’d suggest that reviews have three functions. They should help readers decide whether to see something that sounds appealing. They should give readers some sense of the pictures that are dancing through the heads of our fellow citizens. They should summarize and biblically critique the worldviews of our key cultural teachers.

The triple task makes the reviewer’s job hard. He has to be both a regent (standing in for readers as their eyes and ears) and a teacher. He needs the discernment to bring out theological implications and the lightheartedness to enjoy movies that aren’t theological treatises. He needs the ability to look at what other people see but then see it more deeply through adept use of a biblical lens.

Along with the triple task, a Christian reviewer should understand a triple distinction: amoral, moralistic, and biblical. Many reviewers today are amoral, worshipping sensation for sensation’s sake, reveling in slow-motion murder and fast-talking obscenity, not even paying attention to whether films and programs glorify evil. That’s sub-Christian reviewing.

A second group of reviewers are moralistic: They appropriately attack the amoral but then push smiley-faced films that preach faith in man’s natural goodness. These reviewers criticize amoral destruction but don’t note how the subtle sapping of moralism can be even more effective in keeping us from seeing our need for God’s grace. They roll over for smarmy products designated as “uplifting”-but uplift apart from Christ is idolatry.

Christian reviewers should be neither amoral nor moralistic. They should be Bible-centered in their search for films that help us to comprehend evil and the need to fight it. Christians disagree on the extent to which films need to depict man’s depravity and sin’s consequences, but truthful films often are not nice, just as Christianity is not a nice religion: Priests used hyssop to spray the blood of sacrifices on the people in Moses’ time, and Christ had to shed his blood, not just preach, to pay for our sin.

The hard reality of biblical faith distinguishes it from the spongecake of theological liberalism. And that brings me back to Saving Private Ryan, a powerful film that starts with a bloody D-Day. Some of the violence is so intense that lots of people will want to skip it. And yet, the showing of violence in a world filled with evil is not evil itself, as long as it does not make killing people look like fun – and this film makes it look appropriately horrible.

Further: the theology suggested at the end of the film can open up good discussion. One dying soldier’s last words to the man whose life he and others saved, at great cost, are “Earn this. Earn it.” Then we fast-forward half a century: The man who was saved, now old, is in a cemetery, hobbling to a cross that commemorates his savior. The old man fights back tears to say, “I lived my life the best I could. I hope that was enough.”

That’s the question: Has the old man “earned it”? He turns to his wife and pleads, “Tell me I’m a good man.” His wife says, “You are”-and we see his children and grandchildren behind him. The gospel according to director Stephen Spielberg is evident: We can pay for the life that’s been given us by our good works-although we’re never sure if we’ve done enough.

That’s provocative in itself, and even more important is the shadow lurking at the end of Saving Private Ryan: the mystery of grace offered by a man dying for us. Maybe some of us can discuss with non-Christian moviegoers how Christianity alone brings into harmonious tension the earning and the gift.

  1. Loved Saving Private Ryan though it was one emotionally draining film!

  2. Dave Miller says:

    Thanks for posting this. The article is very helpful for those of us who try to review movies from a Christian worldview. The difference between moral and moralistic is sometimes hard to discern, but if the review is Bible-centered, it makes things much easier.

    My take on Veteran’s Day and Saving Private Ryan:

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